There’s a scene in the second episode of The Morning Show where Jennifer Aniston’s character is riding in her car en route to an award show. Her stress levels are approaching a 10, and they’re not helped by the fact that she can’t fit everything she needs into her teeny-tiny silver clutch purse, which we see in shot: overstuffed and open like a baby bird’s gullet, fed too many worms to eat. Eventually, she sighs and swears at the bag.
A few weeks after this episode aired, singer Lizzo was on the red carpet at the American Music Awards, where she’d decided to accessorise her peach-coloured Valentino ruffle dress with a bag roughly the size of a bottle of Tipp-Ex. “There are only three in the world,” she explained. What could she possibly fit in there, asked the host. “I’ve got tampons in here, a flask of tequila, condoms,” she lied, hilariously.
In both cases, the joke is this: these Findus Crispy Pancake-sized bags are ridiculous, oh world of fashion! They can barely hold a broken lipstick, let alone a packet of tissues and half a Strepsil. In these cases, real-world concerns (practicality, durability) are unimportant next to the more pressing issue: WILL IT LOOK GOOD ON INSTAGRAM? So why the popularity?
“They are not practical,” agrees Dara Prant, market editor of Fashionista. “But they do elicit a year’s worth of commentary and are great conversation starters,” which is great currency online. “If you only go out with a mint (just one) or a piece of gum, lipgloss and a credit card, then a mini-bag is fine. But if you want your handbag to hold your phone, wallet, a snack, meds, first-aid supplies and a hand sanitiser, you should invest in something larger.” In other words: exist outside 1080px by 1080px? See ya, sucker!
Useless in an utterly lovely way, mini-bags are huge right now. (According to Grazia Middle East, the surface area of the average handbag has shrunk by 40% in reaction.) They’ve been carried by everyone from the Kardashians to model of the moment Kaia “daughter of Cindy Crawford” Gerber. The tiny bag has always walked the line between “in fashion” and “are you joking mate?” In fact, in the 18th century it was nicknamed “ridicule”, because of its lack of functionality. As in: Mrs Elton, the tragi-comic character in Jane Austen’s Emma, has a “purple and gold ridicule”.
The attraction, according to Prant, is simple: it’s sweet. “Their popularity has something to do with the psychology of loving tiny things,” she explains. “Mini-bags are kind of like puppies – they’re just very cute.” Awwww… So we should carry our car keys in our underwear?
The most high-profile designer who made the link to the online world was Simon Porte Jacquemus. He realised that values of proportion varied considerably IRL and online – and what looked good on your phone trumped anything else. Jacquemus was the auteur behind Le Grand Chapeau Bomba (a planet-sized straw hat that guarantees facial anonymity, as worn by Bella Hadid) and the supersize straw handbag. He delivered invites to his Paris AW19 show with micro-versions of his La Chiquito bag, which was about the size of a biscuit. The real Chiquito bag was not much larger: 12cm long, £400, as carried by Kim Kardashian and Rihanna. It became the No 3 hottest women’s product, according to the Lyst index. It was about the size of a Christmas bauble.
So, tiny bags have become objets d’internet, and there’s a knowingness in how they are used in public. “I’m not sure every star uses bag size to intentionally become a meme, but I certainly think celebrities like Lizzo know the power of bringing a microscopic Valentino bag on to a red carpet in terms of creating even more buzz around a look or an appearance,” says Tyler McCall, editor-in-chief of Fashionista. “Meme-able fashion has become increasingly popular with the rise of Instagram and other social media, because it makes an immediate visual impact.”
Sometimes, being extra small isn’t enough. Sometimes you’ve got to be extra large. In October, Diane Keaton Instagrammed a woman carrying an industrial-sized bag with the caption: “Not big enough for me. I’ll be buying two.” She was re-gramming a photo from the Big Bag Club, one of many Instagram accounts that take photos of women carrying large bags and supersizes them . Keaton’s choice of photo was one of digital influencer Loulou de Saison carrying a bag from the fashion label Khaite. “It was very big already in reality,” says Virginia Rolle, who runs the Big Bag Club. “To enlarge it again was a gamble, but my followers liked it so much that it became viral.”
Rolle first came upon her idea when she was “scrolling through my Instagram, when I found Paulinha Sampaio during London Fashion Week with a huge Gucci bag. At the beginning, I thought it was a fashion meme, a joke. Then I found that it was real and I started to imagine all the bags in a larger size.”
Oversize bags were a key part of the “boho chic” trend from the noughties, led by stylist Rachel Zoe. The look was popularised by celebrities such as the Olsens and the Hiltons; alongside large handbags were large sunglasses and tiny physical frames. Retrospectively, the vibe was very “just entering Promises treatment centre in Malibu, post Coachella”, and was, alarmingly, labelled “skinny-girl chic”. “Zoe’s influence was almost as big as the bags she got her clients to carry around,” explains former Heat deputy editor Julian Linley. “She pioneered the artfully bohemian look that was all relaxed and creative, but screamed ‘I’m loaded!’ Her followers even had their own name: the Zoebots.”
Linley says he remembers that her influence spilled over, like an extra-large frappuccino, to the high street. “Every shop window looked the same,” he says. “Tiny mannequins holding enormous bags in the crook of their arm, heavily accessorised (most important: saucer-sized sunglasses) and Yeti-esque Ugg boots – it got so big that it quickly turned the corner into being naff.”
Despite fashion nods from Fendi, Bottega Veneta and Marni that the massive oversize bag will return next season, it has lost some of its stature over time. “I’m not sure celebrities have taken to it in a genuine way,” says McCall. The mini-bag seems to fit this era of social media-led celebrity and shareable content. For a meme to be successful, it needs to work with a sophisticated ease and on multiple levels. Indeed, when something goes viral, a conversation begins between the photo or gif and the meme creator.
For Lizzo and her tiny AMA Valentino bag, this was clear in the memes created in the aftermath. They were inevitably on-point: “Lizzo carried my bank account to the AMAs,” read one. “Can’t believe Lizzo brought my patience with men to the AMAs,” read another.
Pre-Lizzo, perhaps the first mini bag that gained an upswing in popularity thanks to a pop culture shout-out was the Fendi Baguette. Beloved of Sex and The City’s Carrie Bradshaw (who once claimed: “I’m homeless; I’ll be a bag lady. A Fendi bag lady but a bag lady”), the original iteration has sold around 1m copies since its 1997 launch. So perhaps it’s the perfect mini-bag to launch in the famously cautious menswear market. It looks pretty inoffensive, but do men really want to give up their backpacks, man bags and holdalls for something that looks like it carries your epi pen?
“I’m not sure bags that aren’t even big enough to hold a stick of gum will catch on,” says Nick Carvell, former GQ news and features editor. “They’re fun, but fun often doesn’t result in longevity in how we dress – how many men wear codpieces these days?”
Prant is more optimistic. “Men don’t carry much anyway, so it actually makes more sense for them to wear them.”
George Banks, the designer behind Florist, who creates beautiful miniature embroidered bags, agrees. “I think men’s attitudes towards bag size are developing,” he says. “Guys are more open to unique-shaped bags. It doesn’t always have to be of a practical nature – guys are opening themselves up to silhouettes that are cute rather than sensible.”
I call to mind the NBA’s Jordan Clarkson, who has taken to wearing his murse around his neck, Flavor Flav-style. I worry about him getting the chain entangled as he tries to beep in his Oyster card, or having to go to A&E after his hand gets stuck mid-reach for Kleenex. There is, I think, no filter that would make that look good on the ’gram.
Small but perfectly formed
Get the look yourself with these tiny bags from the high street
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